Sunday, 3 October 2010

'Red Ed' and the Labour Party

Well after a leadership race often derided as ‘boring’ the Labour Party contest came to an extremely startling result as Ed Miliband beat his older brother by a hair’s breadth. Ed now needs to turn the Labour Party into an election winning machine. Can he do it?

On paper Ed Miliband has certain advantages over a generic opposition leader. Firstly his party holds 259 seats in a hung parliament. Compare this to the Conservatives in 1997 held a paltry 168 seats and stood opposed to a 179 seat Labour Party minority. To have won the 2001 election the Conservative Party would have had to double their number of seats, and to become the largest party they would have had to have taken 127 seats from Labour. Labour on the other hand only needs to take 25 seats from the Conservatives to be the largest party, and only 67 to win a majority. Both these figures are within a reasonable shooting distance. At the same time Labour is the only major opposition party, at least in England. With its two main competitors locked in coalition anyone who takes against the government has only one major alternative – Labour. On the other hand the cuts will be extremely unpopular in a couple of years as we get used to a barrage of stories about things like police officer redundancies.

That said he has several disadvantages too. Firstly the Labour Party’s finances are not in a great state. This may make him dependent on Trade Unions. A way of avoiding this would be to broker a deal on party finance reform with the Coalition that capped Union donations in exchange for caps on big money donations from businesses and wealthy individuals. The Lib Dems, in particular, would be likely to jump at this and the Conservatives would likely have to be dragged along by the mood on political reform. Other issues are that while Labour has a healthy number of seats this masks a low popular vote – 29%, one of Labour’s worst ever scores. In a sense, Labour’s ‘good’ performance is due to the poor performance of everybody.

Other issues are exaggerated. I have encountered much speculation, particularly from activists of other parties about internal factional infighting or even possible splits. Such wrangling relies on an exaggerated view of the policy differences between Milibands and wings of the Labour Party. For example David Miliband’s ‘mini-manifesto’ featured policies such as:

· Making the public sector pay a ‘living wage’

· Giving employees a say on pay committees in order to check excessive pay at the top

· A ‘mansion tax’ on the top two million homes

All of which are positions that have been used to tar his brother as ‘Red’. In reality Ed and David’s major differences were due to attempts to appeal to different sections of the party’s electoral college – Ed aiming for Trade Unionists, David for MPs and MEPs. While the leadership contest got a bit divisive at times it was also nothing on the Labour leadership contests of the past. If you want to see a divisive contest I recommend Benn vs. Healey, compared to THAT contest this was a walk in the park. I see no real sign of the kind of factional rift required for such apocalyptic predictions.

The other issue the Labour Party is it must not look backwards. Yes, it needs to recognise its mistakes but moving back to an ‘old’ Labour approach or a 1997-esque Blairite platform will both fail. Both are, more or less, out of date. ‘Old Labour’ cannot win, but neither can a simple attachment to Blairite doctrines, which are seen as too controlling by today’s modern liberals, and which is aimed at an aspirational middle class when the middle class has not seen its financial situation improve since 2003 and who are mostly in a situation of insecurity. Rather than being upwardly mobile, most centrists are now afraid of becoming downwardly mobile. They are afraid; afraid of the costs of sending their children to increasingly expensive universities, afraid of the lack of jobs and whether their children will be able to get jobs, of a coming pensions crisis and finding themselves not getting richer or even getting poorer.

The Labour Party needs to find fresh answers to these issues from the social democratic tradition, and rather than Blairism Labour needs to find a new ‘Milibandite’ voice. Throwing of the party’s image as nannying and controlling is essential to winning over liberal centrists though at the same time the party needs to recognise fears of crime and immigration amongst more socially conservative members of the working class. It needs to perform a careful balancing act between groups. It needs to be conservative enough on immigration to appeal to the working class, but not so conservative as to frighten away middle class liberals and ethnic minorities. At the same time populist rants against bankers will find much sympathy amongst the middle classes in a way in which they wouldn’t have done until recently.

There is potentially fertile ground for a Labour comeback in 2015, but Labour needs to tread carefully, intelligently, and most of all change.


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